When faced with new and exciting audio technology like Sennheiser’s Orpheus, it’s easy to get swept up in specifications and numbers. But ask any artist what they really care about, and most will say the same thing: music is about impact; how it affects you. Sennheiser's goal - reshaping excellence - is to ensure technology gives you that impact. And then some.
“Music is important to me because of the way it makes me feel,” affirms conductor Jonathan Stockhammer, when we ask how technology can benefit music. “I often can’t predict how it’s going to make me feel, but that’s the fun thing about it.”
There’s an infectious excitement about Stockhammer as he talks. As someone clearly thrilled by the prospects of new ideas and ways of thinking, his portfolio makes a lot of sense, frequently finding him blurring the lines between classical and pop. He once recorded an award-winning CD featuring works by Frank Zappa, and enthuses about working with Pet Shop Boys, Chick Corea and Peter Erskine. In 2015, he joined forces with Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and Imogen Heap at Sennheiser’s Reshaping Excellence event. “For me, these kinds of collaborations are a way of getting out of the ghetto,” he jokes. “And it makes my work a lot more interesting!”
Stockhammer seems a perfect partner for a company like Sennheiser, which aims to “bridge emotions and technologies”, and push the idea that listening to music can have a big effect on quality of life, due to our ears having the most direct connection to our brains’ limbic system. But Stockhammer notes people sometimes nonetheless forget music is a visceral experience: “the way you experience it acoustically has a very profoundly emotional impact”.
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By way of example, Stockhammer says to consider an orchestra playing in a big, lustrous, wonderful hall: “The feeds we get back will often inspire us to play in a certain way — it’s a kind of positive feedback loop.” At home, he also believes the set-up and listening environment are key: “When I listen to a recording on a really good system, and in a good situation, I’m able to hear aspects of emotionality, impact and crispness that might not come through on other recordings, or in other playback situations. I get this visceral connection to the way the performance was played, and can experience the emotion and drama that went into it.”
Music needs clout
This kind of impact and emotional clout is what Sennheiser’s Orpheus and other technologies such as 9:1 immersive 3D audio are designed to provide. Stockhammer reckons such things are “essential for getting at the nuanced aspects of the music within a performance”; and although some people are quick to dismiss high-end audio as a luxury, Stockhammer believes without this sense of ambition and evolution within music, much will be lost. “There are dangers in our age of convenience,” he says. “Although you can download songs immediately, you lose the joy of the hunt, and we’re always making compromises regarding quality with MP3s. So music might sound passable and recognisable, but this is sucking the beauty out of what music really is.”
He likens this to modern food tasting worse than food from decades ago, primarily due to speed and cheapness becoming priorities during production; he’s afraid because we’re similarly not getting at the true essence of music – much love for it will be lost, or it will become like wallpaper. “This is why it’s lovely to think about the alternative: technologies and situations that enable us to get back to the beautiful, the voluptuous and the sensual.”
It’s important to have an appreciation of audio and music, he says. And while he notes that cheaper technologies can serve to refresh our memory of something we experience very deeply, they should in no way be seen as a replacement for those sounds. “Just like the concert hall, I hope that never disappears. We’ve all at some point had goose pimples on hearing something, and cutting-edge technologies are a way we can experience music in its most sensuous form.”
The new Sennheiser Orpheus will be available from mid-2016, and will cost around €50,000.